Friday, October 14, 2011


Looking back on our first semester teaching Digital Civilization, there are a couple of things that stand out for me (besides the fact that this was the most fun I've ever had teaching a class):
  1. I really like how we were able to integrate computing concepts and digital culture into our coverage of western civilization.
  2. Our emphasis on self-directed learning has revolutionized the way I think about teaching.
More about these below ...

Computing Concepts and Digital Culture
When we started designing this course, we really didn't know how well we could teach basic computing concepts and digital culture in a course that is primarily about the history of western civilization.  It turned out to work far better than we had hoped.  To give you a sense of the breadth of topics we covered, here are some representative blog posts:

We also covered some key aspects of digital culture, including open source softwareelectronic freedomagile development and the "release early, release often" mentality, and the impact of digital tools on our civilization.

Self-Directed Learning
At first, the class was disorienting for students.  They didn't have a complete reading list handed to them.  They had to figure out how to blog instead of writing papers.  They had to learn how to search for reading material, create compelling content, and connect to other thinkers on the web. This was so much unlike a typical class, that it was hard to adjust.  In the end, the students came through brilliantly.  Many of them remarked how much they enjoyed being encouraged to stretch and grow, to contribute to their own education.  Their best experiences included an element of social discovery.

I found that the class was as much a revelation for me as it was for our students.  Like a lot of teachers, I had been stuck in the mold of "delivering a lecture" rather than a learning experience. In computer science, this also is manifested in programming assignments that are overly scripted -- we give students an exact description of what they need to create, some code to show them the "right" way to do it, and in some cases a set of automated tests that will verify whether they have done it correctly.  So much of this process is oriented toward building what the instructor wants, that there is little room for student creativity.

As a direct result of our Digital Civilization experience, I have been reflecting on how I teach and trying to incorporate new methods that encourage student participation, self-directed learning, and creative exploration.  As part of our final presentation evening, I created a Prezi called Self-Directed Learning: A Manifesto that discusses how I have changed my teaching methods.  It ends with the following manifesto:
Teaching centered on learning objectives won't be successful unless we include the missing ingredient of self-directed learning 
  • Students must become responsible for learning
  • Instructors must give up some amount of control over course material
  • Students must be willing to accept the challenge that comes with being an equal participant rather than a passive listener
  • Instructors must engage students in authentic tasks instead of artificial assignments
50 brains are better than one, even if that one brain has a PhD